The first picture that was taken of me with my friend Lois was on the shores of the Dead Sea. There we are, two little girls – one blonde, the other dark-haired; one taller, the other shorter. We are holding hands with our fathers and we are oblivious to the fact that our lives are already intertwined, that we are experiencing the world in a completely different way than our peers in our countries of origin. After the picture was taken, we went back to our respective homes – me to Pakistan, her to the Kingdom of Jordan.
We would not remember or think about each other until I was 18 years old, beginning a nursing program on the edge of Chicago. At that point, we were destined to become friends.
Our friendship began in earnest that year as we dealt with classmates, Freshman nursing instructors, the cold of Chicago, and the business of being third culture kids who were trying to fit into their habitat but finding it was a bit of “square peg meets round hole.”
There was no word for us at that time. We were missionary kids and the expectation was that we settle back in and make our missions and our parents proud.
She had a year up on me in negotiating life in the West – she had already been through a year of college – but we were still fish floundering on land, trying to breathe through gills that were created for water. I remember going to a wedding together where we were supposed to do the guest book. “What’s a guest book?” I remember thinking. A few years later, my husband and I would find out we were actually both at the same wedding. “I always wondered why there was no one attending the guest book!” he said with surprise. My guilt was absolved when he said that it was not the right job for two third culture kids. We stood by the guest book for five minutes and then abandoned our posts, uncertain on how to respond to the small talk of rural Pennsylvania and clearly out of our element in both dress and responsibility.
Our conversations covered Pakistan, Middle Eastern politics, the Iranian revolution, and which restaurants in Chicago served the most authentic Pakistani or Middle Eastern food.
When we graduated from nursing school, Lois went on to work in a refugee camp in Somalia, while I moved for a short (though oh so long) year in Massachusetts. She was learning how to function in tents with limited supplies and overwhelming problems; I was learning how to survive a head nurse who took such an active dislike to me that she accused me of overdosing someone with morphine.
I was at her wedding a year later, celebrating her union with Dave – a blonde haired, blue-eyed man who had captured her heart. A few weeks later, I flew to Pakistan to work as a nurse, only to return a few months later and meet the man who became my husband.
My husband and I moved overseas, while Dave and Lois moved to the woods of Maine. Children were born. Then more children were born. All the while, Lois and I would talk by phone every time I was in the United States. She would come visit me in Massachusetts at the home we lovingly called “Eight-Acre Woods.” We visited their growing family in Maine, where we found a Pakistani restaurant and ate off of styrofoam plates, our forks sticking into the sponge as we inhaled a chicken curry. They came to Egypt, where we visited the famous Pyramids of Giza and had the most memorable visit of our seven years in the country. Between us, we had five kids and a baby and as the sky turned a grainy yellow, we knew we were caught in a sand storm. We stumbled along, trying to appreciate ancient ruins while protecting our eyes and our children’s from the blowing sand, the gritty particles getting in our mouths, our hair, and our ears. I remember muttering meanness at my husband, even as I tried to behave for the sake of our visitors.
Lois and I knew what it was to grow up Christian in Muslim countries; to struggle with the missionary kid identity, even as we burst with pride at who our parents were; to grieve goodbyes and multiple losses; to have adventures that people would never believe; to long for places and people with an indescribable ache – and yet to not regret how and where we grew up. We learned early that this third culture kid life was a life of complexity and contradiction; that faith was a struggle worth the pain. We always argued whether the sky over the ancient ruins of Petra or the sky at 7000 feet in the foothills of the Himalayan mountain range had the best stars. (My husband, who has been both places, says without doubt that it’s Petra.)
Through the years, my friendship with Lois has seen me through some of the most difficult periods of my life. I can’t imagine having walked the journeys that I have without knowing Lois was there. We have never lived near each other since that time, but the friendship has survived.
Despite living miles apart since our Chicago days, Lois has walked me through distorted theology, anger, and deep grief. Mingled throughout have been times of laughter, eye-rolling, head-shaking, and pure joy. Because anger and grief go down easier when you know joy is around the corner.
We still have our “diaspora blues” — times when we know we don’t fit in here or there, when we realize we will always be “too foreign for here, too foreign for there.”* Despite this, we have both found our niches in our passport countries.
The thing with Lois is that I’ve never really had to say goodbye, because I know she’s always there. Maybe that’s what makes her so special.
*Diaspora Blues by